Photos by Richard King
We’ve all grown up hearing the testimonials and the clichés: “You can take an AK, throw it in the mud, shake it off and it’ll run as if it was just out of the armory.” Or, “Charlie would pop up out of the rice paddy water and open fire.”
And they don’t seem to wear out, either. AP photos from Sudan show starving guerillas clutching rifles and their sole magazine with no bluing left and the wood dried to cracking, yet the rifles continue to fight, even though their untrained owners provide them with little or no maintenance, because they don’t really understand what makes them work.
Apocryphal tales poured out of Vietnam. One claimed that the CIA had handloaded magazines of AK ammo with dynamite and then left them alongside remote sections of the Ho Chi Minh trail. The idea was that guerillas would find them by chance—”Look, Nguyen, one of our careless brothers lost a magazine…”—with catastrophic results.
According to the legend, somebody finally tested several of these rounds. And not only did they not blow up the rifle, but it cycled perfectly. Don’t test this at home.
Another RVN legend is that the American high command had to issue an order forbidding GIs from discarding their new M16s in favor of captured or black-market AKs, as photos might damage American prestige in the world press. I doubt this one, as shooting the enemy’s weapon is always a dangerous proposition. But this shows the awe and respect held by U.S. and allied troops for the Kalashnikov’s almost mystical durability.
Verifiably, the design is so resilient that AKs built by hand-drill and file in the village of Darra, Pakistan, serve alongside Soviet-made variants in Afghanistan, without measurable differences (although sometimes egregious metallurgy can produce spectacular failures suitable for YouTube).
Let’s explore just some of the engineering reasons why the AK is reliable.
1. Positive Magazine Locking
Anyone who has ever used an M16 in the field knows that getting the magazine to lock is problematic, and the slapping of the mag has become a fixture of Hollywood to show a character’s determination, sort of a visual “We’re going in!”
Indeed, with America’s first attempt at a detachable magazine, the M-1 Carbine, getting the 15-round mag to stick was an equally iffy procedure. And our M-14 mag’s front camming lug is so small you have to feel around for it, like your first girlfriend’s bra snap.
But the AK’s mag has a brawny camming lug and a matching deep recess that can pack up with dirt and still function. The mag locking catch is oversized with a powerful spring. Like a pitbull’s jaw, once it goes “click” it’s not letting go. Also, the length of the classic banana clip acts as a powerful lever in the event of resistance by mud, grit, rim-shards or human remains.
2. Case Taper
Perhaps this, more than any other factor except the beefy magazine lips, is the most important reason an AK is so reliable, and especially and eternally more so than any straight-walled 5.56/.223 weapon. Every self-loading weapon chambered for a tapered cartridge is more reliable than the same design chambered in a straight-walled cartridge.
In the U.S., the M1909 Benet-Mercie LMG was chambered in .30-’06 and discarded after six years, yet in tapered .303 British, it served until 1939. The Lewis LMG was superb in .303 British, yet failed in .30-’06, 7.92×57 and 7.65×53. And the excellent Czech zB-26/30 (chambered in the straight-walled 7.92×57) only became a reliability legend as the .303 Bren Gun.
One must note that while the U.S. has fussed about with a half-dozen straight-walled 7.51×51 NATO machine guns in the past 60 years, the tapered 7.62x54R made the PKM machine gun the most reliable GPMG in the world through the same period. Why?
Think of this: if you have a tapered case wall, and the case is seated, the wall of the chamber and the case are in contact. Upon extraction, they pull away from each other. Anything that was between them, be it dirt, grit, or casing fragments is left there as the case, like your summer romance said: “It’s been nice.”
But with a straight-walled case (.30-’06/7.62×51/5.56×45) as the case struggles to be pulled loose from parallel chamber walls,
all those fragments and all that dirt try to grab the casing. It’s like that Spring Break in Daytona Beach: Casing: “Dude! She wants me to meet her parents. Get me outta here.” Extractor: “Man, I’m trying, but there’s just so much I can overcome. Lunch with dad at the club? Damn, a chunk of your rim just came off in my claw…”
3. Hard Chrome
Tropical service and corrosive priming are both as tough on rifling as Hepatitis C on a liver. The cure is hard chrome. Also referred to as industrial chrome, this is laid on much thicker than the shiny stuff on the neighbor’s Harley. We’re talking about .010, depending on what year and what place of manufacture.
Hard chrome really is hard, with a Rockwell of about 65, making it only slightly softer than your ex-wife’s heart. It resists oxidization better than almost any metal except gold, and makes barrel cleaning sort of optional, except for the purposes of accuracy. Alas, if you’re truly concerned about accuracy, trade your AK for a Lewis Machine & Tool AR.
4. Magazine Lips
Bent, dinged or factory misshapened magazine lips are the number one cause of all weapons malfunctions, whether manual, semi-or fully-automatic. 1941: Upon being issued new submachine guns, Soviet soldiers would pass around the drums and magazines, test fire and decide who kept what. Legend holds that this was an important factor in why the lips on a Kalashnikov mag are thicker than buckle-bunnies around a rodeo star.
If you drop an M-16 magazine, it’s toast. That’s why the U.S. military considers them un-serialized, disposable items. But, unless it’s used as a monopod on concrete, one AK mag will last the life of the weapon. And an AK has a long, long life. Those AK mag lips will outlast all of us and the host weapon.
5. Heavy Bolt Carrier Group
The engineering formula says that the bolt carrier should outweigh the bolt by a factor of five; the AK’s carrier/piston outweigh the bolt by a factor of seven (14.45 oz. vs. 2.6 oz.). Having a heavy bolt carrier is like having a really strong hand on the wine-cork puller. This is one reason M-1 Garands are more reliable under harsh conditions than M-14s: The long operating rod (which functions as a bolt carrier) weighs more than the M-14’s shorter, lighter rod. In the case of the AK, the long-stroke piston is connected to the heavy bolt carrier and lends its weight to the effort.
6. Ease of Cleaning
Observe a Marine Corps squadbay after a weapons cleaning session and you’ll see a Biblical amount of Q-tips, pipe cleaners, patches, small rags, dirty towels, worn-out chamber brushes and specialty tools, including some that resemble Medieval instruments of torture.
Were you to find yourself in an Afghan village among Mujaheddin (been there, done that), you’d see them with their AKs, tying knots in their boot laces for the bore (optional) and using a piece of rag dampened with 10-30 from a truck’s dip-stick for the rest of their ablutions.
Any Syrian villager with an IQ above room temperature can pull off the receiver cover, remove the action spring, bolt carrier/piston and remove the bolt and clean them all with the tail of his shirt, and put it all back together. Licking his fingers, he’s ready for another week of combat in about five minutes. Any dirt, grime, caked oil and metal shards he missed have found their way into the numerous recesses inside the action and are of no concern.
7. Free Travel (Momentum)
You’re stuck with a dead battery on lover’s lane. You can’t seem to muscle the F-150 over a small rock to reach the downhill, so you push it backward a few feet, then quickly forward to get it rolling, and it pops right over the rock (and you pop the clutch in 2nd and get Desdemona home by midnight).
This same concept is critical in weapon design, and the AK has a lot of free travel: Upon firing, the hard-working bolt carrier travels about a quarter inch before it starts to cam the bolt open, and then it goes a little too far at the rear of its travel, then it travels freely forward before the hard work of stripping a cartridge out of the magazine. Then, when the bolt has firmly chambered the round, the carrier continues forward a smidge before camming the bolt into its locked position.
8. Long-Stroke Piston
Short tappets and gas impingement, designed for accuracy and clean rifles, are for urban sissies. Real rifles, designed for a rough life in the dirt, use long-stroke pistons. That added mass flying back and forth detracts from quick, accurate follow-up shots. Who knew?
But again, if you wanted accuracy you should have been born in a different village, joined a different army or bought an LMT AR and $95 worth of cleaning gear.
Important details: The gas relief holes gradually bleed off pressure instead of the all-or-nothing of short tappets and impingement; the piston is hard chromed because it gets coated with corrosive gas residue; the piston rod is connected to the carrier by a pin in a flexible union, that way, as the two parts travel together, they don’t bind and lose energy. Kalashnikov and his team (including some really savvy Kraut engineers) knew what they were doing.
9. Loose Action Tolerances
Yes. When you shake your AK and the inside parts rattle around, it’s a good thing. Don’t worry, they’re all going to go to the right places, and where it’s critical, tolerances are plenty tight. But the AK is designed to fire on the run, on full-auto, as masses of Soviet infantry sweep across a pulverized objective.
It’s designed to heat up, and as parts heat they expand. There has to be room for them to grow. Also, there has to be room for the parts to reciprocate when there is dirt and grit in the action.
Even in the Arctic, feeding and extracting cartridges produces thousands of tiny particles—and sometimes small chunks—of case material, scraped off or gouged out of the rim by the extractor. Eventually, this will build up. There has to be room at the inn, and your Kalashnikov is an excellent innkeeper.